Omiyage Gift Purchasing By Japanese Travelers in the U.S.

Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach
Yoshito Yamamoto, IBM Japan, Ltd.
ABSTRACT - This article reports an exploratory study on the purchasing behavior of Japanese travelers in the U.S. Respondents expended more effort, and nearly as much money, buying gifts to take home (omiyage), as they did on personal items. Price and product quality were important criteria for both types of purchases, while country-of-origin and packaging were especially important for omiyage gifts. These and other findings have implications for gift giving and cross-cultural consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Terrence H. Witkowski and Yoshito Yamamoto (1991) ,"Omiyage Gift Purchasing By Japanese Travelers in the U.S.", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 123-128.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 123-128

OMIYAGE GIFT PURCHASING BY JAPANESE TRAVELERS IN THE U.S.

Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach

Yoshito Yamamoto, IBM Japan, Ltd.

[The authors would like to thank Alan R. Andreasen, Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and encouraging comments on earlier drafts of this article.]

ABSTRACT -

This article reports an exploratory study on the purchasing behavior of Japanese travelers in the U.S. Respondents expended more effort, and nearly as much money, buying gifts to take home (omiyage), as they did on personal items. Price and product quality were important criteria for both types of purchases, while country-of-origin and packaging were especially important for omiyage gifts. These and other findings have implications for gift giving and cross-cultural consumer research.

INTRODUCTION

In 1987, 2.1 million Japanese travelers came to the U.S. for business, study, and pleasure and spent $2.1 billion, excluding airfares (Hutton 1988). The total number of foreign visitors to the U.S. that year was 29.7 million and they spent $14.8 billion (OECD 1988). Thus, the Japanese, accounting for only 7.2 percent of all foreign travelers, have expenditures amounting to 14.2 percent of the total. Since the Japanese generally take short trips when going overseas, their expenditures on a daily basis are impressive. The Economist (1988) reports that the average Japanese tourist spends nearly $800 on shopping on each foreign trip, "the highest spending per person by any nation's travelers" (p. 64). According to U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration (USTTA) data, the Japanese out-spend the West Germans more than two to one (Go 1989).

Since the number of Japanese going abroad has been rapidly growing (over 20 percent increases in U.S. visits for both 1987 and 1988), their buyer behavior while overseas is a phenomenon of growing importance. The USTTA expects Japanese expenditures in the U.S. to rise to $3.5 billion in 1989 (Go 1989), providing potential opportunities for American retailers who serve this market. Worldwide, Japan has run a massive deficit on its balance of travel account, $5.8 billion in 1986 (Morris 1988) and $8.6 billion in 1987 (OECD 1988). The Japanese government predicts this figure will rise to $10 billion by 1991.

The high value of the yen explains part of this comparatively heavy spending, but there are other economic factors. For example, the Japanese government allows $1600 in duty free imports, a strong incentive compared to the $400 the U.S. allows. Also, the Japanese can find bargains abroad because their relatively inefficient retailing system charges high prices. According to the U.S. Commerce Department and Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, 60 percent of all Japanese goods surveyed can be bought for less overseas than they can in Japan. In contrast, 90 percent of American and other foreign items cost the same or more in Japan than they do in their home countries (Pine 1989).

Finally, Japanese travel spending has an important cultural component. As Nobuo (1988) argues, "the major expedition of any trip abroad is to buy souvenirs for the folks back home, and for that there is always interest and plenty of money to burn" (p. 436). The Japanese call such gifts omiyage. The authors' field observations of Japanese purchasing behavior at duty-free airport shops and specialty stores in southern California support Nobuo's contention.

Omiyage purchases appear to be a major factor in the amount the Japanese spend while on trips. To investigate the extent of this form of gift buying, and to compare purchasing effort and criteria for gifts with items bought for personal use, data were collected from a convenience sample of Japanese travelers departing from Los Angeles International Airport. This article will discuss some theoretical issues that directed the study, its objectives, methodology, and findings, and its implications for gift giving research and for marketing to Japanese consumers.

GIFT EXCHANGE IN JAPAN

Gift giving has social, personal, and economic dimensions (Belk 1979). Gifts bind people together and tangibly express social relationships (Sherry 1983). The long history of ritualized gift giving in Japan began with the offerings of food and sake to supernatural beings (Befu 1968). The secular concepts of giri or "social obligation" and on or "an indebtedness" (Lebra 1969) evolved from these religious practices while the household became the basic gift giving unit. The circle of kin, friends, and acquaintances with which-one has reciprocity is termed the kosai (Johnson 1974). During the times of o-chugen, in July, and Oseibo, near the end of the year, gifts are presented "to those persons to whom an individual or a family feels a special enduring indebtedness" (Condon 1984, p. 82).

In modern, urban Japan gift giving remains an important social custom for reinforcing a group-oriented self-concept (Green and Alden 1988). The Japanese language has over 35 different terms for gifts and households give or receive an average of 23 gifts a month (Morsbach 1977). The Japanese take reciprocity so seriously that once involved in mutual exchanges they find it difficult to opt out. Morsbach believes this resembles the Western custom of sending Christmas cards when we feel obligated to mail cards to people we do not know or care about because they have sent one first. Some educated Japanese treat this giri-based behavior as an empty formality and feel it is a nuisance (Befu 1968). However, gift packaging still matters a great deal, partly because people prefer not to open presents in front of the giver.

One of the typical Japanese gift giving occasions occurs after trips inside or outside Japan: "It is an iron rule for the Japanese that one cannot go on a trip without bringing back omiyage" (Isamu 1963, p. 234). The rule applies to both children and adults and for both short as well as long vacations. Japanese travel brochures emphasize shopping abroad and indicate the kinds of gifts that can be purchased (Moeran 1983). The Japanese term their "souvenir culture" omiyage bunka. Like picture postcards, gifts brought back from trips reaffirm social relationships.

The cultural basis for giving omiyage is partly an egalitarian attempt to share an outside experience with the people left at home, but also a status marker that shows the person has been abroad. The concepts of kinen or "souvenir" and meibutsu or "a specialty of the area visited" are very important in Japanese culture (Graburn 1987). Thus, omiyage should properly be obtained from the tourist site. The act of giving also represents thoughtfulness and is much more important than the actual contents of the gift. The presentation of gifts to fellow workers "is often accompanied by deep apologies for the long absence" (Nobuo 1988, p. 433). Japanese norms dictate that these gifts should cost approximately half of any senbetsu, farewell gifts given to those going on a trip, and be tailored to the age and sex of the donor (Graburn 1987). Omiyage should also be the monetary equivalent of previously received omiyage in order to keep the relationship in balance. Gifts that are too cheap or too expensive disrupt balance.

In Japan, railway stations and numerous souvenir shops carry a wide variety of inexpensive, cleverly packaged omiyage products. Department stores display gifts by price and advertise mid-year gift sales in newspapers. Japanese traveling abroad, on the other hand, must look hard to find suitable omiyage. Purchasing such gifts "usually causes a great last-minute rush among Japanese during their final days overseas" (Morsbach 1977, 110). This suggests potential marketing opportunities for retailers in the U.S. and other countries who wish to better serve Japanese travelers.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The first priority was to discover how much a typical Japanese traveler in the U.S. was spending on omiyage and what kinds of products were being purchased. The study also investigated the motivational components of giving omiyage. While the Japanese are guided by traditionally strong norms of social obligation, they also buy gifts to express personal affection for the receiver. Such individual-to-individual gift giving, a relatively modern, urban trend (Befu 1968), compares to Western gift giving, as well as some traditional non-Western practices (Gregory 1980), where exact reciprocation is not that essential. It is motivated by ninjo or a person's "natural feelings and desires."

To place these findings within a larger context, the study examined expenditures on items bought for personal use and on differences in purchasing effort (time spent, stores shopped) between these items and omiyage. Condon (1984) believes that the Japanese spend more money on gifts than on items for themselves. Although some prior research has found that purchasing gifts requires more effort (Clarke and Belk 1979), other studies find more effort expended on buying for own use (Heeler, et. al. 1979). Belk (1982) reconciles these conflicting findings by observing that some gift giving occasions are simply much more involving than others. Rucker et. al. (1986) suggest that, in terms of timing, personal items are given priority over gifts.

Exploring the absolute as well as relative importance of eleven product purchasing criteria was another major objective. One important criterion was country-of-origin (Japan, other Asian country, Europe, or U.S.). The increasing globalization of business has stimulated research on country-of-origin effects (see, t example, Han and Terpstra 1988). Since custom dictates that omiyage gifts should be made in and representative of the area where they are purchased, Japanese consumers in the U.S. should value American manufacture highly when buying these items.

Hutton (1988) and Moeran (1983) have noted that the Japanese love to accumulate status symbols abroad by shopping for name brands in prestigious stores. Therefore, they should view product quality, fashionableness, and brand image as important purchase criteria. Other criteria of interest included comparative price (Japan vs. U.S.), product appearance and packaging, and the availability of a Japanese-speaking salesperson. Because of the importance of gift appearance and packaging in apanese culture, travelers should rate this criterion as more important for omiyage than for other purchases.

Finally, the research examined the effect selected demographic and behavioral variables, such as gender, age, and purpose and duration of trip, have on the amount expended and on purchasing attitudes and criteria. For example, it was hypothesized that compared to older tourists who are probably more supportive of tradition, younger travelers would find gift purchasing to be a less pleasant experience and would be more likely to buy gifts to express individuality and personal feelings.

METHODOLOGY

This exploratory study used survey research methods to gather several kinds of descriptive data. The survey instrument consisted of a cover letter on university stationary and a five page, self administered questionnaire. The authors first developed an English language version and then two translators, whose native language is Japanese, translated the English version into Japanese. Both translators hold masters degrees from American universities. No attempt was made to back translate the questions.

An instrument pretest was conducted to ensure that all questions were simple and understandable and that the answering time was less than ten minutes. The pretest sample consisted of a group of Japanese students attending a large southern California university. Like all modem Japanese, the final version of the questionnaire was printed using a combination of kanji, hiragana, and katakana characters.

Over several days in July, 1989, sixty Japanese travelers about to depart Los Angeles International Airport completed the questionnaire. Although children sometimes buy omiyage for their friends, and are even given an allowance to do so, the sample did not include anyone under the age of fifteen. Both members of a married couple were asked to fill out the questionnaire only if they had separate obligations to, say, different bosses and coworkers. Otherwise, couples were regarded as an individual, as they are in Japan.

Although a convenience sample, the authors believe that the airport location yielded a reasonably representative mix of Japanese travelers since virtually all come and go by air and southern California is their most frequent destination in the continental U.S. The terminal seemed a good place at which to approach these busy people since they were relaxed and waiting for boarding. Also, many Japanese travelers appear to make a final purchase at duty-free shops and, hence, product purchasing should still be fresh on their minds.

RESULTS

Demographic and Behavioral Findings

The Japanese travelers in the sample tended to be young (two-thirds were 34 or younger), educated (over 60 percent attended junior college or better), and affluent (nearly half of the full-time workers earned over $35,000). Sixty percent were male and slightly more than half (53%) were married. Our field observations of Japanese travelers, their comportment, and their dress support these findings.

The primary purposes for visiting the U.S. were sightseeing (41.7%), study (20.0%), and business (16.7%). Trip duration broke into two major groups: short-stay travelers here less than two weeks (55.0% of the sample) and longer-stay travelers, usually students here for more than six months (28.3%). Only 16.6 percent stayed from two weeks to six months. For seventy-five percent of the respondents, the appreciated yen had at least some impact upon their decision to make a U.S. trip.

Product Purchasing

Over eighty-three percent of the sample (83.3%) purchased omiyage, spending an average of $566 per person. Asked to "please list the main product items you purchased as omiyage," the respondents most frequently named alcohol, cigarettes, beef jerky, chocolate, clothing, and perfume. The data did not reveal whether the respondents considered these specific items to be distinctly American or simply purchased them because they were convenient and in the appropriate price range. Many of these items seem to have been purchased at the airport's duty-free shop.

In comparison, slightly more than 78 percent (47 out of 60) of the sample purchased products for their own use. Typical items in this category included clothing, jewelry and accessories, bags and wallets, alcohol, shoes, and cosmetics. Excluding those who purchased houses and automobiles (one traveler spent $450,000 and four spent $15,000 or more), the travelers spent an average of $581 on personal items. However, nearly half of the respondents (46.7%) spent more on omiyage than on products for themselves.

The extent of omiyage purchasing was also indicated by the number of people for whom gifts were intended. Of those respondents who purchased omiyage gifts,-11.8% bought for 5 people or less, 25.5% bought for 6 to 10 people, 17.6%, bought for 11 to 15 people, and 45.1% bought omiyage for 15 or more people, a sizeable gift giving network. Although the questionnaire did not address the issue of uniqueness, the second author's personal experience suggests that the Japanese buy the same gifts for many different people. In Japan, equal treatment is a critical factor in maintaining good relationships with others. Only very close friends can expect a special gift.

The most frequent recipients were friends: 66.7 percent of those who purchased omiyage gifts said they were buying for friends. Other recipients and percentages were parents (60.0%), siblings (58.3%), other relatives (41.7%), co-workers (38.3%), neighbors (31.7%), bosses (23.3%), and spouses (18.3%). The comparatively low figure for "bosses" seems reasonable because over one-third of the respondents were self-employed or nonworking students or retired. The low figure for "spouses" can be attributed to the fact that 41.7 percent of the respondents were single and some others were traveling as couples.

Neither age, gender, nor education were significantly associated with the amount spent on gifts or on oneself. As one might expect, however, trip duration was positively correlated with purchasing for oneself (r =.43, p <.01). Sooner or later personal items need to be replaced and longer trips offer more shopping opportunities for specialty goods. Trip duration was unrelated to omiyage expenditures (r = -.005). Whether away for a week or for six months, Japanese travelers must fulfill their gift giving obligations.

Exchange rates had somewhat less influence on product purchasing than they had on choosing to travel. While sixty percent said that the yen had a fair to significant impact on buying omiyage (56.6% on buying for own use), 75 percent thought it had this effect on the decision to make the trip. Thus, the demand for gifts seems slightly more inelastic than the demand for overseas travel.

TABLE 1

IMPORTANCE OF PURCHASE CRITERIA

Motivational Components of Omiyage

The data suggest that two different kinds of motives influence omiyage purchasing. The first involves reciprocal obligations: 43.3 percent of the respondents said they purchased in return for sembetsu, bon-voyage gifts or money, and 35 percent said they purchased in return for previously received omiyage. Eighty percent of the sample said they regarded the buying of souvenirs to be the traditional social norm in Japan.

The other type of motive reflects individuation and the expression of personal feelings. Respondents said they purchased omiyage to express appreciation (46.7% said this), to express friendship and love (40%), and to give pleasure to the recipient (21.7%). Although these reasons might always have accompanied souvenir gift giving in Japan (in the sense that they appear to be socially desirable responses), their strong showing supports Befu's notion of a modern, urban culture adding new ideas to its traditional norms of reciprocity. Compared to respondents over 30 and to those who had not finished college, younger and better educated respondents more frequently said they bought omiyage to express appreciation or friendship and love. However, none of these predicted differences were statistically significant.

Purchase Effort

For many Japanese travelers, buying omiyage is, at best, a necessary chore. Less than 7 percent of the respondents said that they obtained any pleasure out of buying omiyage. In answer to t another question, only 20 percent of the respondents felt positive or very positive about buying these gifts. Nearly 42 percent (41.7%) were indifferent t and slightly more than 38 percent (38.4%) felt that this buying was bothersome or very bothersome. Respondents over age 30 were somewhat more likely than the rest to say gift buying was bothersome or very bothersome (46.7% vs. 30.0%), but this finding was not statistically significant.

These attitudes may be related to the amount of effort expended on buying omiyage. In terms of time spent and stores shopped, 66.7 percent of those who bought both products for own use and gifts answered that selecting gifts took more work. Only 13.7 percent said they spent more effort on their own purchases. These findings might be due to the fact that 88.2 percent of the gift purchasers selected products for more than five people, a seemingly demanding bit of shopping. Even if gifts were purchased several at a time, suitable omiyage are probably harder to find in U.S. retail establishments than they are in Japan. Since many omiyage purchases are convenience goods like cigarettes and beef jerky, they would seem to be low involvement gifts. However, shopping difficulties actually may make them high in involvement for the travelers.

Purchase Criteria

Table 1 shows the importance of eleven different purchase criteria. A high percentage of respondents rated several criteria as being either important or very important when purchasing for personal use. These criteria were "product quality" (93.6%), "only available in the U.S." (80.9%), "cheaper than buying in Japan" (78.7%), "made in U.S.A." (55.3%), and "well-known brand" (44.7%). The relatively low figures for "well-known brand," "fashionable item" (29.8%), and "product appearance dc packaging" (21.3%) indicate that status is not of overwhelming importance as a purchase criterion when buying for personal use.

The same criteria were rated similarly for omiyage purchases: "product quality" (88.2%), -"only available in U.S." (80.4%), "cheaper than buying in Japan" (78.4%), "made in U.S.A." (765%), and "well-known brand" (56.9%). As expected, the "made in U.S.A." criterion was more important for omiyage purchases. Recall that these gifts are supposed to be a specialty of the area visited. Another criterion rated more highly for omiyage than for own use purchasing was "product appearance and packaging." While only 21.3 percent of the respondents rated this important or very important for own use, 43.1 percent gave this rating for omiyage purchases. Since the Japanese usually do not open their gifts in front of the giver, the packaging is relatively more important.

Purchase criteria ratings varied somewhat when cross tabulated with age, gender, and education. For example, respondents over 30 were more likely than younger travelers to rate omiyage "product appearance and packaging" as important or very important (Chi-square = 7.32, p <.01). Interestingly, more males rated "fashionable item" important for omiyage than did females (Chi-square = 5.85, p <.02). They also rated personal use "fashionable item" and both personal use and omiyage "well-known brand" as important criteria more often than females, but rated personal use "made in U.S.A." as important less frequently. None of these differences were statistically significant. Finally, respondents without a college degree rated the "made in U.S.A." criterion for both personal and gift purchases as important more frequently than the others, but this finding too was not significant.

CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS

This research supports most of the theory and anecdotal observations of the buying behavior of Japanese travelers abroad. The respondents surveyed did expend a good deal of time, money, and effort choosing gifts for their friends and relatives back home. Compared to the items they bought for themselves, the respondents attached more importance to the country-of-origin and to the appearance and packaging of omiyage. For both types of goods, however, product quality, place of manufacture, and prices lower than in Japan were important purchase criteria.

The respondents showed very few differences in either buyer behavior or attitudes that could be explained by age, gender, or education. Only two out of approximately one-hundred chi-square tests showed statistical significance. This lack of variation, which may be caused by some unknown response bias, does support the oft-mentioned description of the Japanese as a very homogeneous culture. Future investigations of Japanese consumers should aim for larger sample sizes and try other forms of questioning to tease out more response variance. Such research-should produce more clearly defined buyer segments than has the present effort.

The study also contributes to the literature on gift-giving. Clearly, omiyage are purchased for the sake of reciprocity, but they do express other, perhaps deeper and more personal feelings. Personal motives seem to be more prevalent among the young and better educated travelers as predicted, but the evidence is-far from conclusive. These gifts also require more purchase effort than items bought for personal use. This might result from the large number of such purchases made by respondents and. perhaps, from the 1:b of readily available omiyage gifts in U.S. retail stores. These situational factors seem to explain differences in purchase effort, but level of involvement remains an alternative explanation in need of empirical test.

The findings suggest that Japanese travelers comprise a distinct segment of consumers willing and able to spend. Thus, U.S. and other retailers who serve this market should evaluate the suitability of their product line for omiyage purchases. Specifically, they need to consider whether they offer a sufficient breadth of merchandise in the price ranges and packaging most desired by the Japanese. Because the Japanese buy a number of these items, ease of purchase should not be overlooked. Place of manufacture is also a very important purchase criterion and, consequently, a good assortment of clearly labeled, regionally-made products should be quite saleable to the Japanese traveler. For example, Darrel F. Corti, a Sacramento wine merchant, sells a private brand called "Poppy" that features the California state flower on the label. Through a special gift program set up by Yoshiya Co., a Tokyo supermarket chain, Japanese tourists can purchase the wine during their California visit but take delivery in Japan (Yoshihara 1989).

Retailers should consider contacting potentia buyers before they leave Japan, while en-route, and at their destination. Since most Japanese travel and, according to Green and Alden (1988), shop for gifts in groups, promotions to or through tour operators should be especially productive. Promotional material should stress the availability of brand name merchandise and the prestige of the store. Perhaps manufacturers should augment these campaigns by providing cooperative advertising funds for use in reaching the Japanese tourist market.

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